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Commentary

Root & stem

Agnostics anonymous

In March, the Vatican cancelled a conference on stem cells. This is less surprising than the fact that the Vatican organised a conference on stem cells in the first place. What did it hope to achieve?

The idea seems to be for the Vatican to keep tabs on scientific progress. Not to denounce it from afar, but to be in the thick of things, guiding and cautioning. Roman Catholicism has tried to learn from its mistakes here. Its stand off with Galileo is enshrined as one of the founding legends of modern science: the astronomer as martyr, the apostle of truth silenced by religious dogma. Since then the Church has become more shrewd; the Pope suggested last year that the Big Bang is fine, understood as an Act of God.

The problem is, it's going to be difficult for any religious institution to play the same philosophical balancing act with scientific discoveries now. This is, as the cliché has it, the century of biology, and progress in biology is going to cut a lot nearer the bone than any breakthrough in theoretical physics. Discoveries in astrophysics have transformed the world that science tells us we live in. But these go mostly ignored because they are too vast to have everyday implications. Herschel's discovery of deep space shattered the crystal spheres of the heavens and extended the universe far out into the incomprehensible. More than two centuries on, it is fair to say that very few people have factored this incomprehensibly-enlarged cosmos into their world-view. Bluntly, it just doesn't fit.

The idea of a Big Bang is easy to ignore in everyday life. Indeed, it is more or less impossible not to ignore; it stops you getting on with things. Similarly, the large hadron collider can be treated with the condescending whimsy the media traditionally uses for stories about 'bonkers boffins' and their madcap schemes. What about the changes 21st-century biology will bring: genetic modification, cloning and regenerative medicine extending human longevity far beyond what we know how to understand?

It might not be possible to laugh these changes off, and it might not be possible to square them with religion as we know it. The philosophical trouble Christianity has had with evolution in the last 150 years is not a promising sign. Some of these future shocks seem a long way off, until you look at how far we've come and how fast. Human embryonic stem cells were first isolated in 1998; today they're being studied as a cure for blindness at Moorfields Eye Hospital. The Vatican, meanwhile, apparently hoped that all mention of embryonic stem cells could be avoided at its conference.

The technology cometh, and soon. Preaching at it won't slow the juggernaut down. The Vatican is probably right to run away from it, and keep running as long as it can.